Fakers, Bakers, and Music Makers – Bonding via Unforgettable Characters

How do you sum up a weekend adventure that had approximately 865,342 high points?

I’m not sure I can, but I’ll at least attempt to highlight a few moments that made my time at the #UCIJretreat2021 amazing and memorable and oh-so-worth-it. (That’s Unforgettable Characters & Incredible Journeys, in case you were wondering.)

A few months ago, author Ralph Walker put out a call for writers. The response was overwhelming, and RW successfully arranged a virtual retreat via Zoom for 20 lucky writers to learn plotting techniques and how to dive deep when it comes to creating memorable characters. In the retreat’s inaugural weekend, writers from all walks of life and all stages of writerhood (Is that a word? It is now.) gathered in their Brady Bunchesque Zoom boxes to talk craft, brainstorm, laugh, and have a good time.

I’m happy to report I was one of those lucky writers. One might wonder: How much can a writer learn from…other writers? The answer is a lot. The thing about writing is that there’s never a time you’re done learning. There’s never a point where a writer can say they’ve mastered the craft so expertly that there’s nothing more to be learned from others. (I guarantee you this is still the case even for Stephen King and Nora Roberts. I promise they, too, can still learn. Knowledge is like Thanksgiving dinner. You may think you’re full, but there’s always room for dessert.)

Plus, friends. Who doesn’t want new friends!? So many writers I’d known via Twitter, but had never gotten to actually know on a more intimate level, and now I had the opportunity! And they write everything. I followed along with characters from everywhere and anywhere (hence the title of this post) and what a ride it was. I fell into so many amazing worlds and so many raw emotions.

To read the words of a fellow writer is a special gift. It’s an invitation into a person’s soul, into their world, into a special place in their heart, and no one who reads a writer’s words should take that honor lightly. I am so very grateful to have been trusted with the words of so many kindred spirits.

As you might have guessed by the name of the retreat, the weekend encompassed creating unforgettable characters and incredible journeys. We discussed what makes a character unforgettable and how to take a reader on a journey with all its rollercoaster twists and turns while still providing an explosive ending that delivers.

And the swag! Did I mention the swag? A box full of goodies and treats, writer fuel (coffee and tea), a #5amwritersclub mug, stickers, and an organized binder chock full of information. It’s clear RW put a lot of work into this retreat, and how grateful I was to have been on the receiving end of it!

Plus, secret envelopes. Did I mention the secret envelopes? RW is a master at the secret envelopes and they were filled with…

Wait.

…if I tell you, they won’t be secret anymore. I guess you’ll just have to apply for the Fall 2021 UCIJ Retreat to find out.*

Bonded by a shared retreat. Love these faces!

*Seriously, do it.

Belonging

We almost bought a brand new house today. Drove an hour and a half northeast and spent all day touring a beautiful, half-built, small mansion in a spacious 1-acre wooded lot in the Poconos. Then we deliberated long hours on whether it was right, where we’d put the garden, the pool, the chicken coop, and how we’d arrange each room, whether to finish part of the basement as a play room for the billiard table, the foosball table, and the poker table.

We drove the neighborhood (not that there was much to drive, it’s not even done being built yet) and checked out the other houses in the area. We drove past the schools the kids would go to, and looked up their ratings on Niche. I even moved the money for the down payment into our checking account so we could write a check and get started. It’s fun to dream. It’s exhilarating to imagine new things and new places and new adventures. What could the future hold? Yes, we said! Let’s do this.

And then, five minutes before we were to sign the papers and hand over the money, pure terror gripped my heart.

Reality came crashing in. This isn’t my house. This isn’t my neighborhood. This isn’t where I belong! Help! Someone take me home!

*Cue the waterworks.*

We stayed in the area, had lunch, discussed our options extensively. I proceeded to spend the next two hours alternately in tears, convincing myself we shouldn’t do it, then recovering and convincing myself we should, then crying again at the thought of leaving our close-knit community where we’ve lived for almost 18 years. When we bought our house in 2003, we planned to stay for maybe 5 – 10 years. Introduce children to the mix, and it never quite seems the right time to move.

Eventually, we stayed here so long that everything is just…comfortable. I like our little house. (I wish we had more space.) I like our little yard. (I wish we had more land.) We have some of the best neighbors, one family we even fondly call our neighbros. (I wish the noisy ones behind us would move out…or at least learn to be more considerate.)

But our tiny school district has some of the most caring, wonderful teachers I’ve ever known – people I’m glad teach my children every day, but also people I’ve come to think of as friends myself. They live and work here, in this small community. And three blocks away? We have a lovely little park that’s home to the local community partnership’s Christmas tree lighting, fundraiser dinners, and monthly farmers’ markets. Our community library (and my part-time job there) would be a thing of the past. The coworkers I’ve come to know and love, I’d never see again.

We often catch some of our favorite neighbors walking past our house on their daily route – walking, walking, always walking. And these neighbors are special. Because they’ve shared in our pain (and our joy) with regards to a pancreatic cancer diagnosis. And that’s a special kind of bond, too. Not many people know what it’s like to travel that path.

Here, we have the kind of neighbors who will pick up your kids from school at the drop of a hat if needed, those who will watch your kids if you need to make an emergency trip to the vet (and our geriatric doggo is already older than most dogs his breed live to see), who will mow your lawn because you’ve been taking care of a sick spouse or child, who will stop by with fresh bread for no reason at all, who will bring you homemade soup when you’re sick (or homemade chili when your kitchen is out of commission because the entire thing is gutted and being renovated).

Here, our children have friends and familiar bike routes and sledding hills. They have parks and schools within walking distance. And even though they haven’t been able to see their friends in person in over a year (minus a few masked visits on the back patio), this is where I want to emerge from our quarantine. This is where I want to celebrate the miracle of science and medicine with our friends and neighbors. This is where I want to have patio parties and barbecues.

It’s hard to give all that up for the bells and whistles of a beautiful new house with its shiny floors and inviting white farm sink. (It was a beautiful sink.) How could we trade the comfort of a community we love so dearly for a brand new place that feels sterile by comparison? In a time when Covid has most of us needing comfort more than ever, I feel like a move to someplace new (though deeply desired on some level) would make me feel somehow more lost.

And so we drove home in silence, my husband disappointed and frustrated, me sniffling from the passenger’s seat. I ran out of tissues. There was a lot of crying. I couldn’t even feel relief once we’d made the decision not to buy because I knew I was disappointing the husband, and that’s a whole other level of internal grief.

All this to say – here? Here, I feel a sense of belonging I haven’t felt many places in my life. And maybe it won’t always be that way. Maybe someday the time will be right to move. Maybe now I can stop feeling this incessant urge to pick up and go. Maybe.

But for now? For now, this is where I belong.

The Benefits of Friendship

I head one of the local SCBWI critique groups in my county for Young Adult and Middle Grade authors and, friends, I must confess I feel a little guilty. Sometimes, this group seems like the L. Ryan Storms writing self-improvement hour. I get SO. MUCH. from my dear friends and our talks about what elements make a piece work or why a certain chapter maybe doesn’t work.

Is it difficult? It can be. It was definitely more difficult in the beginning when I realized I’d never shared my work in person before. (Also, I’m an introvert. Did I ever mention that? Once or twice maybe?) But as time went on, my nervousness disappeared and I began to look forward to the feedback offered to me by these kindred spirits who shared my love of stories and all things story-related.

Our group is fairly easygoing when it comes to the rules, but the general idea is:

Share your work if you have something to share. Give useful, critical feedback on others’ work (no breaking spirits allowed). And brainstorm together when it comes to what we like about a piece, who the audience is, where we think the storyline should go, or how the author can make it better.

I have been so very lucky to know such talented, thoughtful individuals who are willing to read a chapter of my work each month and tell me all the things I need to hear. The good things. The not-so-good things. Because without them, I’d be lost when it comes to catching my crutch words and phrases, my overused actions, my annoying, sarcastic main character (who is a bit of a bitch, tbh), her tendency to overreact from time to time, and the annoying boy love interest who, honestly, isn’t mad enough at the world around him when he should be.

I digress. Without my dear SCBWI group, I’d be lost. I interact with at least a few “lost” writers on Twitter every week, those who aren’t sure if their material works, who feel like they’re embarking on this crazy journey alone, who cry and threaten to never write again, who fear they’ll never be as good as, as talented as, as successful as… (insert famous author name here).

My biggest advice to them is:

Find your people.

There’s so much more to explore in the craft when you do it together. There’s so much more to learn, to unravel, to dissect and put back together when you have a posse. Find your posse. Find your people. When you do, the possibilities open wide.

But Storms, how do I find my people?

Good question. For me, the answer was partially on Twitter, where I interacted with strangers who became friends over the course of both time and multiple in-person meetups and conferences. And the answer was also to join a professional organization like SCBWI to interact with others who were writing in the same age categories. I attended a meet-up or two, met a few members, volunteered to start my own critique group because none of the times/days of the other groups worked for me, and met even more amazing writers at all stages of the game.

Some were traditionally published, some independently published, some agented, some querying, some just beginning to test the waters by admitting publicly (gasp!) that they write. And therein lies the beauty of the writing community. I’ve never met a community so open – so willing – to help others along the way.

The answer is not necessarily to join SCBWI. (Though I would argue that this move is infinitely beneficial in ways too numerous to count. If you write for children or young adults, join SCBWI. Do it.) There are dozens of other professional writing organizations out there. The key is to find what works for you and jump in, whether you think you’re ready or not.

Keep learning, keep growing, keep reaching out to writers you know and writers you don’t. Read works by published authors. Beta-read manuscripts for unpublished authors. Offer valuable feedback, and get feedback on your work. Writing is a lonely craft, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely life. Friends are everywhere. Just hit that ‘Follow’ button.*

Look at all those amazing writers (and readers)!

*Okay, for real, only follow writers you want to interact with. Don’t follow creepers. Don’t follow horrible people. Don’t follow people who look like they will DM you ‘hi pretty lady.’ Don’t follow bots. Don’t follow everyone for the sake of numbers. Find your people. Now go!

2020 Wrap Up

I shoot some stats just about every year, mostly to prove to myself that, yes, I *am* actually moving forward in this thing called a writing career.

Given the craziness of 2020 all around, *I* wouldn’t even blame me if I’d chosen to fall off the face of the earth, or hide under a blanket and never come out. But we’re stronger than that here in the Storms household. Which means, nevertheless, we persist.

And persist we did.

2020 Writing

Books published: 1
eBooks published: 1
Signing events attended: 0 – Thank you very much, COVID. (Also, get your vaccine so you can come to 2021 signings. Because they will be happening as soon as I get my vaccine and the world is in a better place all around.)
Independent Book Award Entries: 4
Manuscript words written: >90,000
YA manuscripts finished: 1
PB manuscripts finished: 1
YA manuscripts started: 1
Adult manuscripts started: 1
Manscripts queried: 3
Queries sent: 96
Query rejections: 55
Query no response: 33
Queries still open: 19
Total accumulative completed manuscripts (2011-2020): 7
Online pitch contests entered: 2
Blog posts written: 11
Number of new SCBWI critique group members discovered: 1 (We’re up to 5 in our cozy little group!)
Writing friends made: Never enough! Writers, find me on Twitter.

Happy Holidays, friends! I hope you’re all safe and healthy and happy and that 2021 brings new and great things. (Preferably all good things, no more disasters and viruses, please. 2020 brought plenty of that, thanks.)

Much love to you all, from my house to yours! xo

Santa came to our house. If you celebrate, hopefully he visited you, too!

Do It Anyway

Dear friends,

As this last day of the year fast draws to an end (and my kiddos would be the first to remind me that it’s ALSO the end of a *decade*), I want to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about for a while.

Which is weird…

…because I can’t think of the words I want to say in this blog post.

It has something to do with fear and chasing your dreams and doing the right thing, but my words are all jumbled and I’m not entirely sure I know what any of these things has to do with the others.

So let’s just start with the fear thing, eh?

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. It occurred to me that when I feel fear, I tend to want to head straight into whatever makes me afraid, and I don’t mean things like rollercoaster drops (no, thank you) or turning and running straight at a grizzly that’s chasing me down (also VERY no, thank you). I mean the kind of persistent fear that creeps into your life and bares its fangs at every turn. The kind of fear that turns into a perpetual state of anxiety that makes you believe you can’t go out (something bad might happen), you can’t eat one more cookie (you’ve had enough, you’ll make yourself sick!), you can’t donate blood (what if you pass out?), you can’t join the gym and workout and do protein shakes like a meathead (your body will rebel – it’s not made for this – you’re a bookworm!).

(Yes, all of those thoughts *really* occurred. Welcome to my brain.)

So yeah, I did the exact opposite of what I wanted to do in each of those scenarios. Instead of running away, I joined the gym and got a trainer & nutritionist and have even been drinking protein shakes for just shy of two months now. They’re gross, by the way, (the shakes, not the trainer & nutritionist – they’re both perfectly delightful), but I’m healthier with the activity and I feel better overall than I have in a very long time.

And I’ve indulged in PLENTY of holiday junk this week. (After many weeks of being REALLY good with diet and exercise, I’m due.) I’ve gone out and done things and seen people and filled my calendar with activities week after week, day after day, even though my introvert self really wanted to hole up in my bed, read a book, and ignore the world some days. Yesterday, I donated blood. Again. For the 3rd time this year. Because it scares the crap out of me and *grits teeth* because. I. can. No fear is going to stop me, especially not my own fear.

On the matter of the chasing your dreams thing, this year has been one heck of a whirlwind. I made the decision in October 2018 to publish A Thousand Years to Wait in 2019, and publish I did. The book launched on April 30th and I could never have imagined the kind of support I would receive from friends, family, and perfect strangers. My love for all of you is so much more than you could ever know. The year was filled with events, signings, and yes – even an audiobook that literally happened in less than a month from conception to finished product. And still, each of you stood by my side and helped make my dreams a reality.

Did I think I might fail? Certainly. Was I terrified of doing so? Hell, yes. Still am.

But what’s that thing I mentioned about fear? Oh, right. Do the thing that scares you most.

Honestly, if it scares the hell out of you, you’re doing something right.

Huh. I guess that’s it. That’s what I’ve been trying to say and that’s the lesson for 2019. Onward and upward. My wish for you in 2020 is that you find what terrifies you, and you tackle it anyway.

Love and hugs, friends. I believe in you.

Dreams (via pixels.com)

12 Books—Month 6

Okay, okay, so we’re a little more than 6 months into the year. Perhaps I was being a tad ambitious about reading 12 Twitter friends’ books in a year, especially when my own book launched a few months ago and I’ve had several signings and events and I’m still trying to keep up on recommended reading from friends and coworkers (which will bring me to 12 Books—Month 7 in a few short weeks).

Without further ado, I bring to you Planetside by Michael Mammay. It’s been a long time since I’ve picked up a science fiction novel. I veer more toward fantasy. What can I say? I’m a sucker for magic and dragons, and I tend to get a little lost when it comes to hard sci fi.

Planetside

That said, there was no way to get lost in Planetside. (I mean, there is, but that’s getting lost in the very best of ways.) I’m not even sure I would classify it as hard science fiction. Does it take place in space? Yes. Are there space stations, and aliens, and hostile planet takeovers? Yes, yes, and yes. Okay, I guess it really is hard sci-fi. But that’s difficult to remember that when the entire novel is wrapped up in what’s essentially a murder-mystery. (Missing person mystery? Can it be a murder mystery if there’s no body?)

I must say one of the most surprising aspects of this book…was finding out that the protagonist wasn’t a misogynistic jerk.

What’s that, you say? Why should that be surprising? Well, I’ve read a number of mystery-thriller novels with a smart-ass male protagonist who’s on the tail-end of his career, but somehow manages to solve an incredibly difficult case no one else possibly could have cracked while snagging a beautiful woman half his age, while also admiring eight other women’s asses in the entire length of the novel. It gets old. Really old. Is it a male fantasy thing? Probably. But I like a good mystery, too, and I love a smart-ass protagonist! (Still…he doesn’t need to be checking out every woman’s breasts or rear throughout the entirety of the book!)

Guess what? Mammay not only doesn’t have a misogynist as his main character, but he also HAS MANY WOMEN CHARACTERS ALL THROUGHOUT THE BOOK AND YES I AM SHOUTING BECAUSE I AM HAPPY. Do you know how annoying it is to see 90% of the cast as male in just about any random book (especially science fiction)? Not only is the main character in Planetside happily married and looking forward to retirement, but he also happens to interact with dozens of female officers, soldiers, and hospital personnel throughout the book, all of which is done without a bat of the eyelashes. Women. Treated as equals. It’s a novel concept. (See what I did there? Novel concept.)

All in all, this book was stellar. My only hitch is in the ending because now I have to pick up Spaceside… Well-played, Mammay. Well-played.

Who’s Who? Volume IV

Twitter is a blessing and a curse in one, but following the right people makes all the difference. Here’s a list of some of my favorites to follow. Get them on your list, too!

Maria Stout (@MariaStout) – I’m a writer, so I really enjoy following other writers, especially upbeat ones who give their all, cheer on others, and never let life get them down. Maria checks all three of those boxes. When I met Maria at the Philadelphia Writer’s Workshop two years ago, we blathered on about how excited we were to be there (‘blather’ is accurate for both of us, right Maria?), and we’ve stayed connected ever since. Also, I like to keep up on the buzz. No, not the gossip. The buzz. On top of being a teacher, a writer, a mom, and a wife, she’s also a beekeeper.

 

Piper Drake (@PiperJDrake) – I started following Piper because of her role on Writing Excuses, a writing-related podcast I enjoy immensely. Piper was a guest host for a year and I really related to some of the insight she shared on the show. Plus, her romance books are full of heroes with dogs, and everyone knows the way to my heart is with dog hair and drool. Piper doles out tons of great advice when it comes to balancing a day job with writing, the roles of agents and editors, really beautiful and mouth-watering food, and of course – all things Corbin J. Drake. And who wouldn’t love to follow that?

 

Geraldine DeRuiter (@everywhereist) – Because every good Twitter account needs a healthy dose of feminism, Geraldine should top your list. She’s smart, quick, and covers a range of topics from travel and politics to television and current events. Journalism, feminism, and opinionism at its finest! (I desperately wanted to share one of her wittiest moments, but I think this one already says it all.)

 

Jennifer Lane (@Metal_and_Earth) –  Jennifer is a fellow eastern Pennsylvanian and Indie Author who recently released her second novel, Stick Figures from Rockport. (Yes, I wrote about that one just recently.) She’s fun to follow and when she posts things like this, she makes me feel so much more normal inside…

 

E.K. Thiede (@ethiedee) – A writer after my own heart, Emily is a blast to follow on Twitter. Much like the other ladies on my Very Female list today, Emily’s Twitter will give you a hearty does of feminism. (Insert cheer! We all need more of this.) There’s rarely a tweet of hers that I don’t instantly ‘heart’ and if I manage to refrain, it’s only because I don’t want her thinking I’m a creepy stalker.

 


Don’t see yourself listed here? Don’t despair. There are so many amazing people to follow on Twitter. Hang around! You might be in my next issue of Who’s Who!

Also, if you missed my last Who’s Who? and you want to discover more great people to follow, click here!

Who’s Who? Volume III

It’s time for another Who’s Who! Here’s a list of people I love to follow on Twitter, and if you’re a writer, a reader, or just enjoy ramblings by intelligent, fun people, you should follow them, too!

T.S. Bazelli (@tsbazelli) – She’s super fun, great at tweeting and quote-tweeting, and posts the best literary advice! I often find myself clicking that little heart below her posts. Plus…her food photos make me drool a little. I long for a personal chef to prepare meals for me (as I hate cooking) and when I see her images…well it makes me just a little sadder that I don’t have a chef in my house. And yet, I can’t look away.


Mads Bertasio (@MadsBertasio) – Mads prefers they/them pronouns and they are an inspiration. I was thrilled to get to spend time with Mads in NYC this past summer, and they’ve taught me so much about what it means to be true to yourself. They’re a whole lot wiser than I was at 26 for sure. Mads is incredibly open about their experience as a queer #ownvoices writer. Their honesty and willingness to share stories about their journey makes me smile every time. Plus, Mads is 99% of the reason that hedgehogs show up regularly in my TL. And who doesn’t need that?


Ralph Walker (@RW_Igloo) – Ralph is a SUPER-writer. Yes, that’s like Superman, but with words. He can do it all. Short stories, full-length novels, screenplays—you name it, he’s done it. Even better? He’s a SUPER-motivator. With his #5amwritersclub tweets, he’s up and tackling words before the sun rises every day. (Which is completely and totally, 100% opposite of my late night writing strategy, but somehow we see eye-to-eye when it comes to putting in the work!)


Angela Caldwell (@AngelaMCaldwell) – I’m not really sure there’s anything Angela can’t do. She’s a teacher, a photographer, an author, a mother, a caretaker, and I’m sure there’s about eight other titles I must be missing… She’s been a wealth of knowledge when it comes to self-publishing and she’s eager to help! And…she’s another super-optimistic writing friend who’s really good at cheerleading!


Yas (@TheWritinStylz) – I love Yas’s Twitter. She’s so much fun to follow, has an amazing personality, and I enjoyed celebrating with her online when she just attained agent representation as a writer! (Say it with me – WOOOHOOOOOO!) Yas is a tremendous and much needed voice when it comes to writing and to life and I only realized as I’m typing this that she just celebrated her 1-year anniversary last month! Congrats on the celebration of a lovely union, Yas!


Mariely Lares (@laresmar) – Aside from the fact that Mariely has a great sense of humor and frequently makes me laugh with some of her tweets, she’s also an amazing writer! Mariely is an incredibly talented Latinx writer who left me hanging (and crying) as a beta reader…because her work is SO intense and I only got to read the first 30 pages. Yes, she’s really THAT talented. I’m not exaggerating. I read the start of her story over a year ago and I’m still thinking about it. The intensity of those first few pages rivaled published authors I’ve read, and I look forward to the day that Mariely’s work is on the shelves of the bookstores. You can bet I’ll be first in line to buy one!


Don’t see yourself listed here? Don’t despair. There are so many amazing people to follow on Twitter. Hang around! You might be in my next issue of Who’s Who!

Also, if you missed my last Who’s Who? and you want to discover more great people to follow, click here!